Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Guilt prevails after impatient interlude

By Dick Hirsch

Guilt has driven me to admit my most recent wrongdoing. Although the deed itself would probably be classified as innocent and forgettable, after I realized what I had done, I was ashamed.

Let’s identify it as the case of the navel oranges. I stopped at my favorite neighborhood grocery store one day recently with a single purpose in mind: I was going to buy some navel oranges. They can be readily found, examined and purchased in supermarkets and most grocery stores, but these were special oranges. What was so special about them? They were being sold at a very attractive price, four for a dollar.

Inasmuch as I was on my way from Point A to Point B and the grocery store was just a few blocks out of the way, I detoured with that specific objective. I had eaten oranges from that store in the past and I knew them to be juicy, tasty and generally of excellent quality. They are not as large as some navels, but, among oranges, size isn’t that critical a consideration.

The mission started on a high note. I found a parking place right outside the store. The oranges were displayed along with other fruits and vegetables on the sidewalk display. I grabbed a plastic bag and as I did so I remember looking at my watch, because I was expected at Point B at a precise time. I mention that because it must be factored into my pattern of behavior.

I assessed many of the oranges and selected eight, secured the bag with one of those wire closures and proceeded inside the store to pay for the oranges. I didn’t consider any other purchase and avoided browsing. There was one cashier on duty; usually there are two. I walked toward the checkout counter and then discovered there were nine customers already in line, many of them having shopping baskets brimming with a variety of items.

I looked at my watch again. I could not afford the time to wait in line; I had an important destination.

I was clearly impatient. Patience is an important quality, a quality well worth cultivating. I believe I am generally regarded as a patient person, and I usually qualify for that description. But I do have my dark side. I do not react in a positive manner when lines are involved. I made a closer inspection of the customers already in line and tried to estimate the time it would require if I joined the line at the end. I couldn’t complete the purchase and still make it on schedule to the all important Point B. Yet I wanted those oranges.

It was then I perpetrated the act of an insufferably impatient person. I turned for assistance to one of the owners who was having a casual conversation with another customer. I had seen him many times before and exchanged a nod and a brief greeting, but he didn’t know me. He may have recognized me as an occasional customer and he must have detected that I was for some reason disturbed. I held the bag of oranges up for his inspection and spoke. I can’t remember the exact words that I said:

“The line is too long. I can’t wait.”

His response was immediate and understanding.

“You have eight? I can take care of you.”

What a kindly act it was. He went to the other register, took my money, recorded the sale, and sent me on my way. I was happy with the result but later, on reflection, I realized how badly I had behaved. I had required special treatment, interrupted the proprietor and refused to follow store policy by joining the line. That was a real snub of those in line. Yes, it is my favorite neighborhood store, but it is probably their favorite store, too.

I make this admission in the hope that my homely story can convey the potential ills of impatience. Physicians often warn of the dangers of being impatient, citing it as a cause of stress which raises blood pressure, strains the heart, irritates the stomach and can weaken the immune system. I haven’t noticed any ill effects from that one episode, but I suppose the damage is cumulative. The experts say lack of patience is not an inherent characteristic. It is a habit that was learned. They say it should be unlearned, which is why I am considering looking for lines in which I would be welcome to practice patient waiting.


Saturday, July 09, 2011

Saving money becomes a full time job

By Dick Hirsch

There are some debates which are not worth expending the energy that participation requires. It’s better to relax on the sidelines, either nodding in agreement or privately groaning in disbelief. The issue that recently confronted me really wasn’t a debate. It was an argument, but no matter how it was classified it wasn’t worth the effort.

It involved the proper pronunciation of the word coupon. Everyone agrees that the word is spelled c-o-u-p-o-n. But there are two absolutely distinct schools of thought on the articulation of the spoken word. Many people---probably the majority---insist on saying “cue-pon,” while claiming that as the preferred way of speaking. Their “cou-” sounds like what a director gives an actor. Meanwhile a sizable number of contrarians are convinced the best way of saying it is “koo-pon,” with a softer “koo” as in coo-coo clock.

With so many ongoing disputes at home and abroad, would you believe that otherwise well-balanced adults would be spending time debating or arguing about that? It happens. I was a witness, not a participant. Soon the French heritage of the word coupon was being cited by both sides as evidence in their favor. There was no verdict and no agreement, so the matter remains unsettled and the participants remain friends and will continue pronouncing the word as they please.

Can you guess what prompted that discussion?

Yes, it was the proliferation of coupons drifting around us, now in greater volume than ever before. The printed coupon dominated for years, with people either saving those received as part of a promotion, or else targeting those that required clipping from a newspaper or advertising brochure. There were always far more coupons published than redeemed. If all the coupons issued had been redeemed the companies would have created a terrible mess, a situation which could have been described as a successful promotion that resulted in failure. 

That was then. This is now: advertisers using the Internet have been accelerating their efforts to distribute an endless array of electronic coupons. It is a new era for coupons. There are so many opportunities for coupon use as well as new styles of coupons that what was once a simple matter has now become much more complex. Newspapers were a primary a vehicle for the distribution of coupons, published as part of ads. But every aspect of the newspaper business has been under sustained attack from the competitive electronic media. That includes coupon deals, which are now promoted by radio, television and Internet, especially the Internet. Until recently the Buffalo News often published a lengthy headline atop page one trumpeting the supposed total dollar value of coupons the paper had published that week.

Eventually the paper decided to get into the Internet coupon business itself, creating a web site business called Sweet Find, patterned after successful nationwide Internet businesses such as Groupon. The consumer pays the promoter, such as Sweet Find, a bargain fee via e-mail and receives a voucher by e-mail in return. I tried it once. It worked. I paid $20 for a restaurant voucher worth $40 and enjoyed the meal.

Maybe it is just a fad but the number of price buyers must be growing and discount pricing seems to appeal to buyers of every financial status. I have always wondered whether wealthy persons redeemed coupons, and I suppose the obvious answer is that some do and some don’t. However, I have a friend, a man of substantial wealth, who occasionally wears a favorite T-shirt with this question printed on the front: “Does that include my senior citizen discount?” I never asked but I believe coupons are used on his family shopping trips.

The first coupons were distributed to promote Coca-Cola in the late 19th century. For me the most interesting history relates to C. W. Post, the cereal magnate. In 1909 Post started marketing his new cereal using a coupon that entitled the bearer to a one cent saving on the purchase of a box of Grape-Nuts. Post was competing with hot breakfast foods and introduced Grape-Nuts as a healthy alternative.

Apparently it worked because over a century later the brand is still being marketed to those who like the taste of the chewy granules. I confess that I’ve always found Grape-Nuts more appealing when I have a coupon. As a matter of policy, I rarely venture down the cereal aisle in a buying mode at any supermarket without a coupon.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

A meaningless observation: It is what it is.

By Dick Hirsch

    Have you ever been involved with people who consistently talk without saying anything? Sure you have. We all have. In fact, I suppose there have been times when even I could have been accused of adopting that approach in certain instances. But they have been rare, I assure you, and I make that admission only because it helps qualify me as an expert in the field of rhetorical nothingness.

This is what I am talking about:

“It is what it is.”

That is the current cliché of choice among people who either cannot think of a relevant comment, or else, for whatever reason, have decided to rely on the use of that phrase. It has soared to the top of the hit parade among speakers whose opinion has been solicited on some topic.

“It is what it is,” they observe, believing that statement qualifies as an astute comment. It enables them to avoid speaking directly about the essential issue being discussed; they can refrain from expressing an opinion or attempting to contribute any information that might have some bearing on the subject.

One thing you may not have realized is this: You will rarely if ever see “It is what it is” in print. Why is that? Simple. Spoken, those who employ the phrase believe it enables them to pose as an informed commentator because it actually doesn’t sound badly when uttered. Some might claim it actually has a compelling mystique. But written down? It doesn’t work; it comes across as nonsensical and absolutely devoid of real meaning.

Should we devote a little time to an attempt to define it? That would be a noble effort but the only conclusion we could reach is that it is a bloated vocalized pause. The vocalized pause, also never seen in print, usually presents itself in conversation with one of these three sounds: um, er or ah. The insertion of a vocalized pause provides the speaker with some time to consider another thought and construct the next sentence. While “It is what it is” has some of the same appeal as a vocalized pause, it is really a cliché and I continue to marvel at the speed with which it entered the vocabulary of so many people.

It first came to prominence during the sports interviews where owners, coaches, managers, players found it useful in good times or bad, after wins or losses. Then it migrated to the general population. In the sporting world it still outdistances such shopworn comments as “He always gives 110 percent,” or “We’re taking it one game at a time,” or even that hoary but still reliable “We won’t know until we review the film.”

Despite my own negative view, “It is what it is,” when compared to comparable clichés, has proven to be a potent contender. Probably the best testimonial to its acceptance and power is this: It completely obliterated “whatever,” which, for a prolonged period had established itself as a conclusion that seemed appropriate for use in any of an infinite variety of circumstances.

Depending on the manner in which the speaker pronounced the word, “whatever” resulted in different reactions. A bland “whatever,” spoken softly in a resigned fashion, as if followed by a mere period, seemed to indicate willing acceptance of the pertinent situation. However, with the use of a more assertive tone, “WHATEVER” could be interpreted as being either inquisitive or exclamatory. Cliché users became infatuated with its brevity and its zero meaning, and it soon became recognized as a versatile conversational dingbat.

However, as so often happens, “whatever” became a victim of overuse. It meant absolutely nothing to anybody when it first became a popular comment. As time went on the reason for saying “whatever” became more and more elusive and the usage of the word declined. What is the current status of “whatever?” Hmm. That is difficult to evaluate. Moribund? Maybe; but perhaps it could sometime in the future make a comeback. The best assessment of the status of “whatever” could be: It isn’t what it was.

There were many people who were troubled by the passing of “whatever,” people who found that their conversational style was severely cramped by the loss. That same fate awaits those who have embraced “It is what it is.” Are there possible substitutes? Oh, yes, there are many, but I refuse to recommend any of them. My advice, when struggling to contribute something meaningful to a conversation, consider nodding in an understanding manner while maintaining silence.